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A Year of Learning Conversation with Kevin Carey About “The End of College”

Kevin Carey Panel

From left to right: Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning, John Mitchell; Associate Vice Provost and Dean of Community Engagement and Diversity, Nicole Taylor;  author and education analyst Kevin Carey; and Graduate School of Education Professor and Co-director of Stanford's Lytics Lab Mitchell Stevens discuss the future of higher education.  Photos by Misha Bruk.

The author of a provocative critique of the modern university experience joins Stanford experts to discuss where higher education can – and should – go next

In his recent and widely-discussed book on the future of higher education, “The End of College,” author and education analyst Kevin Carey offers a powerful critique of how universities operate and suggests that forces such as rapidly rising tuition and increasing technical innovation may soon radically alter the entire landscape of higher education. 

It’s an argument that deserves careful consideration as Stanford undertakes its Year of Learning initiative to explore the future of teaching and learning at Stanford and beyond, suggested Year of Learning coordinator and VPTL director of interdisciplinary teaching and learning, Petra Dierkes-Thrun in introducing Carey to a full house at the Barnum Center this week.   

“While some topics this quarter are very specific, we also want to look at the higher education landscape overall,” Dierkes-Thrun remarked. “Kevin has provocatively proclaimed the end of college, so what better way to provoke discussion than hearing from someone who thinks it’s all over?” 

Joining Carey in conversation were Graduate School of Education Professor and Co-director of Stanford’s Lytics Lab Mitchell Stevens, Associate Vice Provost and Dean of Community Engagement and Diversity Nicole Taylor, and Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning John Mitchell (standing in for Associate Vice President for Strategic Planning Roberta Katz, who was indisposed). 

Author Kevin Carey

Stevens opened by noting that previously settled ideas about the funding, regulation, organization, and even the value of the university experience are all today “in a state of ongoing transformation.” In such an atmosphere, he said, Carey’s deep research and imaginative speculation offer a valuable lens through which “to think about what some of the risks and possibilities for this moment in higher education might be.”

In response, Carey, who is also director of education policy at the Washington think-tank New America, acknowledged the ways in which higher education isn’t delivering for students, especially its decline in affordability and the degree to which it has lost focus on quality teaching and learning. But he added that he wanted his book to “give a very optimistic sense of what the future of higher learning can look like.” That future could emerge by creating new organizational structures for delivering education more efficiently and by using technology intelligently, he contended. However, he said, “that points to a future in which existing organizations will be forced to make some uncomfortable decisions about what they are going to be and what they are not going to be.”

In the nearer term, Cary added, it also presents institutions that have developed very successfully within the existing higher education ecosystem, such as Stanford, with a question. “If Stanford was being as creative and generous as possible in using advances in technology to serve as many students as it could,” he asked, “what would it look like?”

Responding, Nicole Taylor emphasized that whatever happens next on a broad scale must address the issues of equity and access that occur across the entire spectrum of higher education institutions. But at Stanford, she said, those issues look a little different. “The issues of equity and access that our students are dealing with are in not seeing themselves reflected in the people who run our institutions and in the people who are teaching in them,” Taylor observed. Might the changes in higher education that Carey is predicting, she wondered, somehow offer students from groups traditionally excluded from university faculties and administrations the chance to find the opportunities they need?

Petra and Audience Discuss

That was very likely, Carey said, emphasizing that technology could be deployed by new, publicly-minded institutions serving students of all kinds to offer a more coherent, more student-focused experience. Technology certainlydoesn’t only mean distance education without the benefits that come with a more social model of learning. But it could be used to lower costs, freeing up money to provide the kind of support that many poor or first generation students need but that institutions currently can’t afford. 

Real change also requires a larger shift in how we view higher education as a public good, argued Carey. At present we direct more resources to the most privileged students, for example, and relatively few students nationally get a ‘traditional’ residential college experience, so concerns about that being lost have already come true for the majority of students. But change in a system that has seen very little innovation in the last forty years might also require competition from entirely new kinds of educational organizations. 

Vice provost of Teaching and Learning John Mitchell drew on Stanford’s recent and carefully documented experience with massive online courses to ask how technology can really impact the quality of teaching. Online lectures don’t really replicate what’s best about a Stanford class, he said. So how can the best kind of Stanford classroom experience be scaled, how would that be paid for, and where should Stanford be looking to have the largest impact based on the capabilities and expertise of its faculty? 

One thing Stanford could offer would be more credentialed online learning, responded Carey. But it also matters whether you choose to keep your prices high, as some universities offering credentialed online degrees already do, or use the efficiencies that you gain through your online systems to reduce costs to the student. “But doing that,” he suggested, “is not really in the interests of the institutions that hold all the cards right now.” 

That sparked a discussion of how Stanford could work with other organizations to deliver new forms of credentials for learning experiences, with a particular focus on the kinds of collaboration that colleges could undertake in the areas of teaching and learning and how to offer incentives to make that happen.  

The panel also examined the complicated intersection between teaching and the ever-changing fields of knowledge teachers seek to convey, and the very particular nature of education when compared to other markets that have been transformed by digitization. “We shouldn’t shy away from the word efficiency, though,” Carey cautioned. “The people who lose out from inefficiency aren’t the people who started with the money. They’re the ones who never had it. If we can find a way to help people learn more efficiently, that would be a boon to humanity.” 

Questions and observations from the audience drew perspectives from Stanford and visiting faculty, administrators, policy analysts, and investors in educational startups. They prompted the panel to discuss other examples of new educational models for offering credentialed degrees, whether costs (tuition, books, living expenses) or class availability have a greater impact on student access to community colleges, and the conversations around the political, organizational, and financial realities that must be addressed to effect real change in the provision of higher education. 

Barnum Kevin Carey Discussion Panel Question

How can Stanford help move things along? It can happen in two ways, argued Mitchell. “We can change the set of programs that we offer and who we try to reach directly,” he said. “Another category has to do with engagement with other organizations and institutions and trying to help figure out how to be more effective in different places on a broader scale.” Stanford doesn’t teach many K-12 students, for example, but has a significant impact on K-12 teaching through its School of Education. In many ways, Mitchell said, the latter route might be the more powerful one for Stanford to take. 

“I’m optimistic,” Carey reiterated as discussion drew to a close. “There’s a broad public sense that we lost something when we allowed ourselves to slip away from this basic commitment to the idea of affordable higher education for all, and that we ought to get back to that.” But we won’t get there, he suggested, by doubling down on the old organizational model. “What we need to do is get back to the promise, but for this century and not the last one … to muster our societal resources in a way that actually makes sense given what we can do now.”